The Scourge of Suicide Among Third World Women

Oppressed by tradition and politics, women in the developing world are choosing suicide


| September-October 1999


Much has been made of China's vaunted economic revolution and its inevitable impact on global trade, politics, and the environment, but the collision of Western-style development and traditional culture may be creating a more immediate—and troubling—issue: Chinese women are killing themselves at an alarming rate.

A quarter of the world's women live in China, but, according to Women's International Network News (Spring 1999), the country is home to more than half the world's female suicides—about 500 a day. Indeed, World Bank researchers found that China's female suicide rate is nearly five times the global average. It is the only country where female suicide victims outnumber male suicides.

The phenomenon is especially common among young, rural Chinese women. (Three times as many suicides take place in the countryside as in the cities.) The continuing low status of rural women has collided with the nation's growing market economy, writes Veronica Pearson in Jane (June/July 1999). Although the communist government 50 years ago granted women equal access to divorce, education, and jobs, those rights—along with the majority of moneymaking opportunities—are found primarily in China's major cities.

And thanks to television, rural women now know their urban counterparts have more money and freedom, while their own lives aren't significantly different from those of their great-grandmothers. Arranged marriages are still common, sons are still treated like "little emperors," and daughters—if they aren't aborted or abandoned—are rarely educated. Once they're married, young brides are at the mercy of their husbands' families, particularly their mothers-in-law, whom they are expected to wait on like servants. Young women begin to command respect, says Pearson, only when they have produced male heirs.

These aren't depressed or mentally ill women, either. WIN notes that early results from a study being conducted by a Canadian psychiatrist suggest that most of these suicides are impulsive acts—often precipitated by a family quarrel—committed by otherwise sound women.

Social workers and doctors are working together to devise suicide prevention strategies—including family counseling and emergency hot lines—in some of China's larger cities. But these services aren't available in rural areas. "It's an uphill fight in a country where one suicide conference was abruptly canceled last year and mainstream newspapers have not even mentioned the topic," WIN reports.